Within These Walls
Nearly every student at the University of South Dakota spends at least some time learning, researching, and studying in the four academic buildings slated for significant renovations and updates in the next few years.
USD is asking the South Dakota Board of Regents to split the costs of updates necessary to bring Churchill-Haines, East Hall, Dakota Hall and South Dakota Union in compliance with the latest building codes and up to date with current instructional and research needs. The total estimated costs are $41 million.
All four structures—from East Hall, the oldest continuously occupied building on campus, to Churchill-Haines, constructed in 1977—house bustling classrooms, academic offices and laboratories, despite their aging ventilation and electrical systems, says Brian Limoges, assistant vice president of facilities management at USD.
“Most of the HVAC, plumbing, electrical and fire alarm systems in these buildings are outdated and no longer supported, so if a piece of equipment fails, we may not be able to get parts,” Limoges says. “Also, our labor hours are longer on this equipment, so we spend more on maintenance and repair than we would if we were to renovate and install modern energy-efficient building systems.”
Bringing the buildings in compliance with latest building codes would also enhance the experience of those who study and work on campus. “These buildings do not meet current standards for light levels, ADA accessibility, heating or cooling and restroom counts,” he adds. “Because of these issues, it limits the building occupants and visitors to the buildings.”
Contained in these structures are offices for academic disciplines that range from biology, chemistry and psychology to history, English and political science. Most of the departments that offer courses necessary for all USD students to complete their general education requirements reside in these four buildings.
“These academic buildings house a lot of our core instructional offices,” says USD Provost Kurt Hackemer, Ph.D. “The buildings are in great shape but have not been updated in decades. We are doing amazing things with the facilities that we have. How much more effective can we be conducting research and instructing students with modernized facilities?”
State-of-the-art research facilities at the state’s flagship university can also mean more outside funding for groundbreaking research. Discoveries and innovations emerging from this research create opportunities for new businesses in the state, Hackemer says. “There is so much value and economic impact to the state from the research that is conducted here,” he says. “This is one of the many ways that improved facilities will benefit USD and the state of South Dakota.”
Modernizing decades-old buildings, rather than tearing down and building anew, retains the character of the Vermillion campus and conserves resources, says USD President Sheila K. Gestring.
“Part of what makes the University of South Dakota special is our beautiful and historic campus,” Gestring says. “Renovating and updating buildings that have long served our students and faculty will allow us to improve the campus experience in the most sustainable and economical manner with minimal disruption.”
Learn more about the four buildings slated for renovation—and what they mean to a few students who have passed through their hallways.
- Year Built: 1977
- Academic Department Offices: Biology and Chemistry
- External Grants Awarded to Researchers: $13 million over the last five years
The newest of the buildings scheduled for renovation, Churchill-Haines has served as the hub for science education and basic research at USD since it was built in 1977. USD’s biology and chemistry departments reside in Churchill-Haines, which contains two large lecture halls, multiple smaller classrooms and laboratory spaces that support everything from freshman chemistry courses to sophisticated research programs funded by the South Dakota Research and Commercialization Council, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.
USD’s biology and chemistry departments achieve the highest standards of education for programs ranging from bachelor’s to doctoral degrees. Chemistry has maintained accreditation from the American Chemical Society for more than 80 years, and biology has been the primary producer of pre-medical students in the state for over a century. The departments have produced many of the university’s national award winners including Rhodes, Goldwater and Fulbright Scholars, as well as National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows.
Every semester, approximately 600 students per week from across the university use the Churchill-Haines labs. These include education majors who will become science teachers across the state, as well as biology majors who will monitor water quality, staff state parks, and work at state and federal agencies that preserve South Dakota’s natural beauty. In addition, the core of the students studying here are the state’s health professionals of tomorrow. These students go on to further their education and become the doctors, nurses, physician assistants, occupational therapists and physical therapists who will work at Sanford Health, Avera Medical Group, Monument Health and Veterans Affairs facilities.
Alumni recall their experiences in the labs and classrooms of Churchill-Haines fondly.
Yankton, South Dakota, native and 2008 USD graduate Frank Leibfarth, Ph.D., credits a class held in Churchill-Haines Room 118 for changing the trajectory of his life.
Now an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Leibfarth was an undergraduate yet to decide on a major when he took an organic chemistry class in the building’s large lecture hall. “I never found my passion until that course,” he says. “It all clicked—the questions I had about science and the world were starting to be answered in that class. And that started a 20-year journey for me.”
Leibfarth, recently named one of the “Brilliant 10” by Popular Science magazine, spent much of the rest of his undergraduate years in the labs and classrooms at Churchill-Haines.
“It became a second home,” he says. “I would go to class, eat lunch and go back to work in the lab. It created a sense of community having the labs and instrumentation in the building with most of the chemistry department faculty and the chair right along the hallway. I was a kid from Yankton. Neither of my parents went to college and it made me feel like I fit in, like I belonged. It allowed me to have the confidence to go on and do what I do.”
At his current academic home in UNC at Chapel Hill, Leibfarth performs grant-supported research on water contamination in North Carolina. “You cannot do cutting-edge research and answer the really hard questions without the necessary instrumentation and facilities,” he says. “USD can compete on the level of other flagship state universities with the facilities in place to bring out that talent and cultivate it.”
Renovation plans for Churchill-Haines include updating laboratory, office, corridor and classroom spaces, including upgrades to interior finishes, HVAC and electrical systems.
- Year Built: 1919
- Academic Department Offices: English, Political Science, Communication Studies and Modern Languages & Linguistics
- Students Served in 2021-22: 8,239
Currently home to the Departments of English, Political Science, Communication Studies and Modern Languages & Linguistics, Dakota Hall opened in 1919 not as an academic building, but as a women’s dormitory. One faculty member whose office currently occupies Dakota Hall feels a family connection to the building.
“My grandmother, the one and only Leona Kaiser, came to USD on a music scholarship and lived in Dakota Hall for one semester, in the fall of 1947,” says Leah Seurer, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of communication studies.
Seurer’s desire to show her office to her grandmother on a recent visit illustrates one of the challenges and necessary updates to Dakota Hall—the building lacks an elevator. “She is a spry and healthy 94-year-old woman, but stairs have become too much for her. The day I brought her to campus we sat on the first floor in the political science lobby for a moment and that was all we could experience together.”
Today’s students, staff and faculty with mobility limitations cannot access offices and meeting rooms on anything other than Dakota Hall’s first floor. Faculty in Dakota Hall departments provide advising for 660 majors and administrative support for a variety of programming, publications, research and creative scholarship and student groups, from American Legion Auxiliary’s Girls State to the South Dakota Review literary magazine. Adequate access to all offices in the building improves the educational experience for students inside and outside of the classroom.
In addition to bringing Dakota Hall into compliance with the American with Disabilities Act, renovation work includes updating and making accessible restrooms on each floor, a new fire protection system, new plumbing infrastructure and fixtures, a new HVAC system throughout the entire building, new electrical equipment and infrastructure, and energy-efficient LED fixtures throughout.
Improvements to Dakota Hall will enhance the support of the 8,239 undergraduate students who take classes offered by the departments in this space.
- Year Built: 1887
- Academic Department Offices: Anthropology & Sociology, History (including Philosophy, Native American Studies, Religious Studies, Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies, and Classical Humanities)
- Architect: W. L. Dow designed the building made of Sioux Quartzite
While Old Main may serve as the most iconic building on campus, East Hall comes in a close second. The three-story building on the east edge of campus features majestic turrets and distinctive pink quartzite stone masonry. Originally a women’s dormitory, East Hall, as well as Old Main, is one of the remaining buildings designed by noted South Dakota architect W. L. Dow.
Constructed in 1887, East Hall’s exterior remains stunning. Provost Hackemer, who retains an office in the building as a history professor, says he remains in awe of the skill that went into the building’s construction.
“I don’t think you could find a craftsman in the United States who could do that anymore,” he says. “There is such exquisite craftsmanship in that building.”
East Hall’s internal hallways and offices, left largely unchanged in the last 50 years, inspire less admiration. Academic offices for the Department of History—which includes programs in philosophy; Native American studies; religious studies; women, gender & sexuality studies; and classical humanities—and the Department of Anthropology & Sociology occupy much of the building. East Hall also includes several classrooms, the Archaeology Lab, and several shared office, lab and meeting rooms. A history seminar room on the second floor resides in a former dormitory bathroom. The mint green square ceramic tiles still line the room.
Proposed improvements to the building include an elevator to make the entire building accessible, improvements to classroom and bathroom facilities, a new fire protection system, new plumbing infrastructure and fixtures, a new HVAC system throughout entire building, new electrical gear, electrical infrastructure and electrical LED fixtures throughout.
Perhaps the most highly anticipated update involves moving the Archaeology Lab from the cramped, poorly ventilated and inaccessible basement of East Hall to a classroom previously used by the dental hygiene program, which recently moved to the newly constructed Center for Health Education building. USD offers the only anthropology major and archaeology minor in the Board of Regents system and produces trained archaeologists needed in the state.
One current faculty member in the building worked in the basement “Arch Lab” during her undergraduate years at USD. Stephanie Spars, Ph.D., earned her bachelor’s degree in anthropology and history in 1997 and now serves as a senior lecturer in the department. Her work-study job often sent her to the Arch Lab in the basement of the building, where she catalogued materials and cleaned up after classes. “I’m a very tidy individual, and some professors were not, so I was compelled to keep it clean,” she says.
Her familiarity with the building and the basement lab as a student came in handy when a tornado threatened Vermillion. She knew about East Hall’s designated bomb shelter. “I knew that would be the safest place for me, so I grabbed my two cats and hiked over to the basement,” she says. “East Hall is made from quartzite and could probably take a direct hit and still be standing.”
Although Spars teaches entirely online, she is a regular visitor to East Hall for meetings and events. “It’s one of the neatest looking buildings from the outside,” she says. “And you got to love a turret.”
South Dakota Union
- Year Built: 1930
- Academic Department Office: Psychology (including Neuroscience)
- Sample Research Topics Explored in South Dakota Union Labs: post-traumatic stress disorder, human decision making, driving behavior and transportation safety, addictive behavior
Alumni who graduated from USD prior to 1965 recall South Dakota Union as their student center. Although the building has housed the Department of Psychology since then, remnants of its former purpose remain—a fireplace in a classroom that was the student lounge, parquet wood flooring from the original ballroom, the rooms that made up the old radio studios on the fourth floor, to name a few.
With the construction of the Coyote Student Center in the mid-1960s, the Department of Psychology moved into the building and has remained there since. One of the largest departments in the university, the psychology department enrolled 3,588 students in 168 sections in the 2021-22 school year. South Dakota Union has undergone limited renovations since the department has occupied the building, which, in addition to faculty offices, contains the Psychological Services Center (a training clinic for the state’s only accredited Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology), the Disaster Mental Health Institute, the Advanced Visualization Laboratory, two standard classrooms, one computer lab, and multiple research laboratories.
Proposed improvements to the building include the addition of modern health and safety features, additional classrooms, new clinic facilities and enhanced research space. Doug Peterson, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the psychology department, says the proposed changes will better serve USD students and members of the public who use the department’s clinical services. As a 1991 graduate of the program and a member of the psychology faculty for the past 25 years, Peterson is familiar with South Dakota Union’s many nooks and crannies.
While an undergraduate student, Peterson spent hours on the fourth floor of the building completing a research project as part of Psi Chi, the psychology honors society. “We met people who participated in the study on the top of the fourth-floor steps, and there was no elevator in the building when I was a student,” he says. “We’d have to give them a moment to catch their breath before they could be a part of the study.”
Not much has changed in those rooms since his undergraduate research experience, Peterson adds. “There is still the light green shag carpet.”
Proposed changes to South Dakota Union will bring undergraduates, graduate students and faculty together in closer proximity.
“For the first time, we will have more classrooms in the building where we have our offices and research labs,” Peterson says. “Students can stop by our offices after class to chat, and we will be able to put announcements about Psi Chi and Psychology Club in a place where students can see them—we’ve never had that opportunity since I’ve been here.”
Psychology faculty have obtained significant funding from National Science Foundation, National Institutes for Health and National Institutes for Mental Health for cutting-edge research to better understand human decision making, addictive behavior and post-traumatic stress. Research previously carried out in labs carved out of converted offices, hallways and closets will take place in new state-of-the-art research facilities, Peterson says.
The proposed design also allows community members who use the Psychological Services Center to enter the facility in a private separate entrance. Renovated clinic facilities with flex rooms will be able to accommodate increased capacity during peak demand while supporting more clinical research during off-peak times.
Even with extensive renovations planned, the building’s original character will shine through, Peterson says. “I’m also very happy that the plans will save the art deco light fixtures in the entrance and main stairs, along with the terrazzo floor, marble stairs and other architectural elements.”
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Frank Leibfarth, Ph.D., a 2008 graduate of the University of South Dakota, will deliver the commencement address at the 135th Commencement Ceremony to be held Saturday, May 7 in the Sanford Coyote Sports Center.